IntelBrief: The Continuously Changing Saudi Explanation for the Murder of Khashoggi
Bottom Line Up Front
- On October 19, Saudi Arabia once again changed its official response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi from a denial to an implausible cover story.
- The manner in which other countries react to the official version of events from Riyadh is extremely important; Saudi citizens themselves can’t show any signs of dissent, as the Kingdom cracks down domestically.
- President Trump noted that the most recent explanation was a good first step, then slightly backtracked from that assessment, while German Chancellor Merkel and other EU leaders refused to accept it from the start.
- It remains unclear if this issue will, like many others, fade from the headlines without ever achieving real accountability or having significant repercussions for the perpetrators.
On October 19, the Saudi ruling family released yet another version of the truth surrounding the disappearance and now confirmed death of Jamal Khashoggi. Since Khashoggi disappeared three weeks ago after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi government has offered several partial and contradictory explanations. The most recent is that the 60-year old Khashoggi got into a ‘fist fight’ with 15 men inside the consulate—some of whom have direct ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—and was killed during the melee. Khashoggi’s body is still unaccounted for, however, even in the latest poorly constructed cover story.The most recent version of events, delivered via tweet from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claims that 18 Saudis had been detained and five had been fired from their respective positions. Two of those dismissed are very senior officials: Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the second in charge of Saudi intelligence; and Saud al-Qahtani, a close advisor to Mohammad bin Salman. In a classic case of ‘the fox guarding the henhouse,’ Saudi King Salman then appointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to oversee a possible reorganization of the country’s intelligence operations.
The U.S reaction, which matters to the sensitive Saudi government, could be characterized as tepid, at best. President Trump has continued his public statements that while the issue is indeed regrettable, it shouldn’t be allowed to derail current arms deals between the two countries, linking these deals, purportedly worth over $100 billion, directly to American jobs. After the Saudis released their latest explanation, President Trump told reporters he found the Saudi explanation ‘credible’ and that it was a ‘great first step.’ Over the weekend, he commented that ‘obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies,’ although he cautioned against financial sanctions or repercussions from the U.S. Some senators, including well-known Republicans, have expressed skepticism over the latest Saudi explanation, although it remains uncertain whether there will be anything more than boilerplate expressions of concern and regret.
On October 20, the spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AKP party said his country would ‘reveal whatever had happened.’ Turkey has continued to leak information to the press about Khashoggi’s death, including reports of audio and video footage of the murder. This piecemeal approach to releasing new information is designed to pressure the Saudis and their allies. Turkey, which has its own abysmal record when it comes to press freedoms, has made it nearly impossible for the Saudi government to stick with its initial story that Khashoggi left the consulate on his own, and now it appears their information made it impossible to say it was an accident. The public identification of the 15-man team that arrived to rendition Khashoggi, as well as the detailed accounting for their arrivals and departures, made it impossible for Riyadh to ignore the obvious connections to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, with some prominent voices in the international media now calling for him to be replaced.
European reaction to the latest Saudi explanation for Khashoggi’s death has been consistent, with German Chancellor Merkel stating that she did not accept the Saudi explanation, adding, there remained ‘a great deal that the Saudis had to clarify.’ Danish Prime Minister Rasmussenstated that the shifting Saudi stories ‘show we haven’t been told the full truth, and we must insist on getting that.’ How Saudi Arabia responds to the reaction of the international community is also of significance. To date, Riyadh has demonstrated intense, almost exaggerated, anger at any criticism of Saudi policy, evidenced by the reaction to an August tweet by a Canadian official expressing concern over Saudi Arabia jailing several outspoken critics. It is unclear how the ruling family will react to far more widespread and pointed criticism, and possible actual repercussions, over the murder of Khashoggi. Interestingly, this story has achieved a unique staying power in the news media, remaining in the headlines and on the front pages in a way few other issues have. Finally, the bungled response from Riyadh has helped draw focus to other Saudi missteps, including further scrutiny of the Kingdom’s disastrous war in Yemen.
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